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Journalists can't risk cutting corners on fact-checking

George Rodrigueby George Rodrigue, Editor and President, The Plain Dealer

There’s an old saying in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Fortunately, The Washington Post still does that. When a conservative provocateur tried to sting the Post, he learned an important lesson about genuine reporting, and helped provide a refresher course to journalists around the country. Including those of us here in Ohio.

The provocateur is James O’Keefe, who runs a right-wing propaganda shop he calls Project Veritas. He says his group goes undercover to reveal hidden truths. Critics say it fakes its way inside target groups (including newsrooms), secretly records people there, baits them, and then releases misleadingly edited versions of those encounters.

The evidence says the critics have a point. O’Keefe has a criminal conviction for wrongfully entering federal property in Louisiana, and paid a $100,000 settlement after a lawsuit alleging that he smeared a worker for the community-organizing agency ACORN in California.

Despite that record, O’Keefe’s reports are often repeated in conservative media and acted upon by like-minded politicians. Congress cashiered ACORN even though subsequent investigations found that ACORN staff members had been misrepresented on the videos and had committed no crimes (although some had said appallingly stupid things).

So the stakes for the Post were high in early November, when Jamie Phillips popped up with a tempting story about Roy Moore, the Republican Senate nominee from Alabama. She said Moore had started a secret sexual relationship with her when she was 15, that Moore talked her into an abortion, and that he drove her to Mississippi to get one.

She also asked Post reporters to guarantee that if they printed her story, Moore would lose the election.

The Post faced several temptations. To print the story immediately, before being beaten to it. To appease the source, through whatever promises might seem to be necessary to keep her talking. Or just to cut a few corners here and there.

According to its account of events, it did none of those things.

  • It never fell in love with the story. Reporters wondered early on why a woman who said she spent only a single summer in Alabama, as a teenager, would have a phone with an Alabama area code.
  • It thoroughly backgrounded its source. It learned that someone with the same name had posted a GoFundMe.com appeal saying, “I’ve accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceit of the liberal MSM.” One of the donors was Phillips’ daughter.
  • It carried its backgrounding effort far beyond the point of having to guess about the source’s honesty. Phillips told the Post that the anti-Main Stream Media (MSM) job had been at The Daily Caller, but had fallen through. She named an editor with whom she claimed to have interviewed. The Post found that the editor did not exist.
  • It dealt with the source professionally, never promising Phillips more than an honest report. When Phillips said she wanted assurances that her story would lead to Moore’s defeat, a Post reporter simply asked more questions. In the interest of transparency, the Post shared video of that interview.
  • It didn’t walk away until it had nailed down the full story. After letting Phillips know that her cover was blown, Post staffers staked out the Project Veritas office in New York and saw her enter the building. Then they interviewed O’Keefe about the sting; he later confirmed, indirectly, that Phillips worked for him.

Later reporting indicated that O’Keefe’s organization had been trying to plant people inside the Post and other newsrooms, in Washington and New York, for months.

Of course, we’re in Ohio. Most of us are never going to be famous enough to warrant that sort of full-on espionage. For all of us, though, credibility is our most precious asset, and it’s under threat.

Years ago, at another not-very-fancy newspaper, we were investigating a big government institution. Through the open records laws we learned that its public relations strategy was to be unhelpful, hope we made a mistake, and then attack our credibility.

More recently, the growth of social media has allowed just about anyone in the world to create fake news, or to shout that real news is fake.

Nationally, some political players seem bent on destroying not only the credibility of fact-based journalism, but the very notion of objective truth.

President Trump’s indifference to fact and his frequent attacks on news organizations are two among many manifestations of this. Project Veritas’ campaign against the Post is not an outlier; it is part of a movement. It reportedly got $4.9 million worth of donations in 2016, including funds from groups associated with wealthy conservatives like the Koch Brothers and the Mercer family, who were among Trump’s biggest donors.

For all of us, national or local, the solutions are the same.

Even if our critics believe that they are at war with us, we cannot afford to see ourselves as being at war with them. Our role in American society is purely to stand up for the truth, and for our readers. To disregard meticulous, fact-based joiurnalism and choose sides in a partisan battle would make us self-blinding, toxic, or irrelevant.

The Post’s performance shows why. Had it rushed to print a tempting but false story, it would have damaged the credibility of its earlier, factual reporting. By not taking the bait, it showed readers what good journalism requires and why it matters.

Had its reporters spoken about some sort of mission to destroy Moore, even if only to placate a potentially precious source, they would have destroyed their own credibility. Instead, they preserved the discipline of impartial fact finding.

This can’t have been easy, but that’s where editing comes in. All of us need to rededicate ourselves to telling important truths, and to getting every tone and detail right. We need to show this in how we assign and edit stories, how we talk about them within our newsrooms, and how we coach and counsel our staffs. We need to acknowledge the political storm outside our buildings, so that inside we can maintain the calm needed to do our best work.

In other words, we don’t need to go to war. We need to go to work.

As for O’Keefe, he did what political hacks always seem to do. He built a fundraising pitch around his latest embarrassment and declared victory. He never admitted that his effort to undermine the Post had served only to bolster the paper’s credibility.

That’s OK. Given clear and compelling facts, readers generally are smart enough to see who’s faking and who’s telling the truth.